How to help children
When a family member is drinking it can be very hard on children in all kinds of ways. You can read more about this in the section How might my child feel?
The good news is that there are things you can do to help your children.
Research shows that children can do very well, in spite of living with alcohol problems¹
Some of the key things that can help children do better are:
- Having a stable adult in their lives, who focuses on their needs and feelings
- Being protected from the drinking behaviour and its effects, like tension and aggression. For example, the drinking happens away from the home and they are not witness to arguments and fights.
- Having routines at home and rituals, like celebrating birthdays
- Having support - From friends and family outside the home
- Understanding dependence
What you can do to help a child
Listen to them
- Don’t deny there is a problem or laugh it off, especially if the child mentions it to you. Explain the drinking behaviour in a simple way and ask them how they feel about it. Read some messages that can be helpful for children to hear when they are living with harmful drinking.
- Ask them how they are feeling often, and check if they are OK if something bad happens. For example, an argument or the drinking person behaving in an embarrassing way.
- Try not to interrupt if a child is telling you about how they feel or what effect drinking is having on them.
- Repeat back what they have said to check you have understood:
- “I think what you’re saying is that this drinking is making you feel really bad about yourself because you think that you’ve done something wrong”
- “So you worry about having people over in case dad is drunk?”
- “You are feeling very overwhelmed because you’re worried that mum will have an accident, is that right?”
- “You’re finding it hard at school because of all the stuff going on at home.”
- Keep the drinking away from your children as much as possible. If possible, ask the person drinking to not to drink in front of the children.
- Try to avoid children seeing or overhearing fights and arguments.
- Put the children before the drinker. Try not to the let the needs or demands of the drinker get in the way of the needs of the children.
- Tell another person outside the family about the drinking, like a grandparent, teacher or adult friend, so that your child can talk to someone else.
- Take your child away from home if they are likely to be affected by drinking behaviour – do homework in a café or library, go for a walk or visit a friend if things are tense.
- Get professional help if there is violence, abuse or mental health issues in the home.
Keep some stability in their lives
- Keep routines and try not to let drinking spoil special occasions like birthdays. If necessary, celebrate without the person who is drinking.
- Try not to break promises and stick to any plans you make.
Let them be children
- Watch out for children taking on too many adult responsibilities like cooking, cleaning and minding other children. Make sure they have time for their schoolwork and to play or meet with friends.
- Don’t burden children with your problems or expect them to give you emotional support. Get a your emotional support from friends and family or from a professional or support group, not from your children.
- Don’t involve them in any adult arguments or conflicts or make them take sides.
Build their confidence and resilience
- Support your children to have hobbies, interests and friendships outside the home
- Watch out for signs of stress and help them to cope in a healthy way – by talking, getting some exercise or learning simple stress-management techniques like deep breathing.
- Help them make a plan for what to do in an emergency, so they don’t feel anxious about this and know they can handle it.
- Explain dependence to them, making sure they understand they have not caused it, and cannot control it or cure it. Read more about dependence
- Encourage and support them to set and achieve goals for themselves. Praise them and celebrate small successes.
Get support for them
- Tell your child’s teacher or school guidance counsellor about any problems at home, so that the school can support your child.
- Arrange for your child to get some special support for alcohol issues, with other young people or with you as a family. For example, you could contact Al-Anon Family Groups, depending on their age.
- Tell your child about helpful websites and services they might like to look at. For example, Childline and www.coap.org.uk
- Show them the information for young people on this site, and ask them if they think it’s helpful.
Family Support Handbook: Helpful information for families affected by someone's alcohol or drug use, including understanding dependence, ways to cope and practical advice.
Parenting positively. Helping teenagers to cope with a parent’s problem drug or alcohol use: Guide for parents of teenagers who are affected by a parent's drug or alcohol abuse, from Tusla / Barnardos
Taking the Lid Off: Resource for families living with addiction and problematic substance use, including understanding of addiction and its effects on others and advice on what helps, based on the evidence.
¹ Velleman, R. & Templeton, L. (2007). Understanding and modifying the impact of parents’ substance misuse on children. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 13, 79-
Aisling McLaughlin, Tara O’Neill, Claire McCartan, Andy Percy, Mark McCann, Oliver Perra & Kathryn Higgins. Parental alcohol use and resilience in young people: A study of family, peer and school processes Funded by HSC R&D Division, Public Health Agency
Bremner, P., Burnett, J., Nunney, F., Ravat, M. & Mistral, W. (2011). Young People, alcohol and influences. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/young-peoplealcohol-full.pdf
Burke, S., Schmied, V. & Montrose, M. (2006). Parental alcohol misuse and the impact on children. New South Wales: Centre for Parenting & Research.
BOTTLING IT UP: THE NEXT GENERATION. The effects of parental alcohol misuse on children and families. http://www.turning-point.co.uk/media/53899/bottlingitup2011.pdf
Farrell, M.P., Barnes, G.M., & Banerjee, S. (1995). Family cohesion as a buffer against the effects of problem-drinking fathers on psychological distress, deviant behavior, and heavy drinking in adolescents. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 377-385
Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) (2010). “If they’re getting loaded, why can’t I?” A large-scale exploratory survey examining the behaviour and attitudes of young people in Ireland towards teen and parental alcohol use, and the effects of parental alcohol use on young people’s lives. Ireland: ISPCC. https://www.ispcc.ie/file/7/0_0/If+they%27re+getting+loaded+why+can%27t+I.pdf
Mylant, M., Ide, B., Cuevas, E. & Meehan, M. (2002). Adolescent children of alcoholics: vulnerable or resilient? Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 8:57.
TAKING THE LID OFF A resource for families living with addiction and problematic substance abuse. ASCERT. http://www.setrust.hscni.net/pdf/Taking_the_lid_off_book.pdf
Tusla / Barnados: Parenting Positively. Helping teenagers to cope with A Parent’s Problem Drug or Alcohol Use. http://www.tusla.ie/uploads/content/Teenagers_coping_parents_Drug_abuse_d4.pdf
Velleman, R. & Templeton, L. (2007). Understanding and modifying the impact of parents’ substance misuse on children. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 13, 79-89.